The Year in Law: Supreme Court 2002

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The Year in Law: Supreme Court 2002
January 9, 2003

The U.S. Supreme Court made news in 2002 but not for any rulings it handed down. Instead, the year was notable for the court's refusal to review a number of cases affecting Indian rights.

After delivering a string of defeats to Indian Country in recent years, the justices passed over disputes involving taxation, sovereign immunity,land claims and jurisdiction. In most instances, their action affirmed favorable decisions to tribes although in a few cases the tribe was on the losing end of the stick.

But when the court accepted two trust cases, tribes and Indian advocates took it as a major setback. In April, the justices agreed to review the Bush administration's challenge to the White Mountain Apache Tribe of Arizona, which had won a $14 million claim to fix crumbling school and other buildings on its reservation.

Two months later, a Bush challenge to the Navajo Nation's $600 million coal lease victory was accepted, sealing the fate for what many expect will be negative decisions.And before the year was up, the court took on another Indian case, the outcome of which will determine the extent of state police powers overIndian land, an area that was traditionally off-limits until the Nevada v. Hicks precedent of 2001.

The other big news related to the Supreme Court was a tribal initiative to counteract those negative rulings through a public awareness campaign that included the 2,800-mile Sovereignty Run to the high court. Draft legislation was also developed, with Sens.Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) set to promote it in 2003.


Oral arguments were heard December 2 in the two trust cases. Observers were taken aback because they viewedthe justices as more favorable to the White Mountain Apache Tribe. A panel of attorneys who have argued cases before the court predicted a victory for the Arizona tribe but wavered on the Navajo Nation dispute.

Whatever the outcome, it will be significant because Bush officials said they will use it to determine the extent of their responsibilitiesto Indian beneficiaries. The lower courts will look to it to determine whether money damages are due for breach of trust.

Panel reacts to Supreme Court trust cases (12/04)Court considers Navajo dispute (12/3) U.S. pressed on trust duties (12/3) Bush officials seek guidance on trust fund (06/27) Navajo royalty case accepted (6/4) Don Hodel's Navajo Folly (6/4) Court to decide limits of trust duty (4/23)Bush wants Navajo ruling reversed (3/27) Leave no Apache school behind (3/29)


Tribes sought for ways to assert criminal and civil jurisdiction over their lands in 2002 through the Sovereignty Protection Initiative.The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) spent the year looking at legislation,federal judges and ongoing litigation in hopes of staying out of the Supreme Court.

Federal judges a new concern for tribes (11/15)Tribes rally in support of sovereignty (10/8) 'It's going to change Indian Country' (8/14) Tribes seek to overturn Supreme Court (2/27) Inouye challenges tribes on sovereignty (2/26)


In December, the court agreed to decide whether statepolice powers extend to tribal governments. In 2001,the justices said yes when it involved individualtribal members and many fear they will expandstate jurisdiction over Indian Country.

There were some bright spots, though. Regardingthe protection of sacred sites, the courtrefused to hear a challenge to the Hoopa ValleyTribe's authority over a non-Indian. The MississippiChoctaw Tribe's rights to adjudicate financialdisputes of tribal members was affirmed. And tribaljurisdiction over child custody matter wasleft untouched in Montana.

State power over tribal government in dispute (12/03)A busy first day for Supreme Court Supreme Court declines tribal challenge (03/19)

Natural Resources

When it came to natural resources, tribes who were victorious at the lower courts had their victories reaffirmedin 2002. The Supreme Court rejected challenges to water rightsin Nevada, land claims in Arizona, environmental control in Wisconsin and eagle feather protection laws nationwide.

Supreme Court denies tribal land case (12/17) Challenge to eagle feather law denied (10/08)State challenge to tribe's authority rejected (06/04)Supreme Court rejects water challenge (05/29)U.S. fights state for tribal water rights (05/24)Group bolsters argument with Indian law (06/12)Appeals court upholds eagle protection laws (1/17)


Taxation in Indian Country has always been a touchy issue butthe Supreme Court didn't think so. An attemptby the state of Montana to tax an Indian-owned business wasrejected in December. Idaho's campaign to impose a gastax on tribes was also turned away although anotherchallenge is still in the federal court system.

Court rejects Indian taxation appeal (12/03)Mont. argues right to tax Indian business (10/22) Idaho tribes score victory with tax ruling (08/20)Supreme Court declines tax case (3/4)

Sovereign Immunity

In 2001, the court ruled against an Oklahoma tribe's immunity defense.But it shied away from similar challenges throughout the year.Tribes in Arizona were protected from suits without their consentwhile a Michigan tribe was unable to overturn an arbitration-related decision.

A busy first day for Supreme Court (10/08) Supreme Court asked to take on tribal 'terror' (06/20)


Indian gaming is a hot item throughout the country but not at theSupreme Court. The Tigua Tribe of Texas lost its chance to keep itscasino open in October and in June, a Michigan tribe movedforward with its urban casino bid after a challenge to a lower courtvictory was refused.

Supreme Court won't review Texas casino case (10/08)Court halts casino projects on behalf of tribe (09/13)Tribe ordered to close 'unlawful enterprise' (06/26)Texas battles against tribes questioned (6/19)Challenge to tribal casino win denied (06/18)

Economic Opportunity

It wasn't an Indian law case exactly but the Supreme Court in October consider the arguments of an Alaska Native partnershipthat invested billions in the wireless industry. A rulingcould be moot, though, as the three Native corporations involvedreached a deal with the Federal Communications Commission toobtain a refund of their money.

Native corporations withdraw FCC bids (12/05)Native corps to receive wireless refund (11/14)Supreme Court to rule on wireless auction (3/5)

More Updates

There were other issues, like federal recognition, thecourt considered in 2002. For more on these, consultsome of the updates Indianz.Com provided throughout the year.

Supreme Court Docket: 2002-2003 (12/04)Supreme Court beginning new term (10/1) Supreme Court Update: 2001-2002 Term (06/11)Supreme Court considering Indian cases (02/19)